Wednesday, 25 April, 2012

London Ale With the Olympics drawing nearer by the day, interest in the host city is at a new high, which means that John Lanchester has picked the perfect time to issue his latest novel, Capital. When we first meet Usman Kamal in the book, he’s assisting his brother, Ahmed, who runs a shop at the end of Pepys Road, the fulcrum of Capital‘s London.

Usman is going through a “devout phase” and makes no bones about his “dislike of selling alcohol and magazines with naked women on their covers.” Here, after a shift in the shop, Usman is on his bike heading to evening prayers in the Brixton Mosque. On the way, he encounters “An advertising poster with a woman lying naked on purple sheets, her hindquarters on full display, with the slogan ‘Does my bum look big in this?'” Next, he sees “A poster with a woman eating a chocolate as if she were fellating it,” and then he cycles past “Two lesbians holding hands while out walking their dogs.” But, the worst is to come:

“Many people were drinking alcohol in the bars beside the Common, women smoking, women and men kissing. Alcohol everywhere. Because it was only six o’ clock most of the people drinking were not yet drunk; it wasn’t the way it would be at ten or afterwards, when, especially at weekends, the whole area would be like a combat zone, a contest between man and alcohol, which alcohol won every time. No, alcohol didn’t just win, alcohol reigned: it presided over weekend evenings like a king, like a malign archangel.”

To Usman, “this looked like a society that was turning itself into a version of hell, in the interest of people who made money selling alcohol.” For those champions of liberalism who admire the photos of Terry Richardson and enjoy a bottle or two of Chardonnay during the evening with their Islington friends, the Usman character is a troubling figure. If he’s right about the horrors of binge drinking, is he wrong about the tacit acceptance that sex sells? Or is he simply too primitive to juggle the contradictions that enable complex places like London to function and flourish?

Either way, John Lanchester has peopled Capital with dozens of fascinating figures and their battles to survive the obstacles and temptations that London puts in their way make this an ideal pre-Olympics read. On your mark, get set, go!

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